Pumps along Capital City Trail stolen

Oversize sandbags have been placed along the Capital City Trail near Madison's Monona Terrace in an attempt to protect the trail from flooding. Seven of the eight pumps helping keep the trail open were stolen.

In response to the devastating flooding following historic rainfall last month, Dane County officials Tuesday proposed a wide-ranging, $18 million initiative to address flooding prevention and preparedness.

“Our charge moving forward is to come together as one community to ensure that we will recover, continue to partner to improve our lakes and waterways and strengthen our infrastructure and emergency response to become even more resilient in the future,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

The sweeping initiative includes funding for an ambitious $2.5 million effort to improve water flow on the Yahara River chain, choked in key spots with sediment and aquatic plants, $9 million for potential conservation acquisition to hold stormwater runoff, and millions more for repairing flood damage, stemming urban runoff and beefing up emergency response.

The announcement comes as the county and municipalities are still reeling from the effects of the Aug. 20 deluge that pummeled western Dane County and raised lake levels to unprecedented and alarming highs.

The budget does not address the controversial issue of lake levels, which are controlled by the county at the locks and dam on the Yahara chain’s largest and northernmost body of water, Lake Mendota. But a draft resolution introduced at last week's County Board meeting leaves the door open to petition to the DNR to change the "permitted target range for lake levels."

The minimum and maximum lake levels are set by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Some, including Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, have been critical of the county’s stewardship of the lakes. In a letter to City Council members Tuesday, Soglin complained that, “Dane County did not maintain Lake Mendota levels at the already allowed minimum, let alone the maximum.”

“Constituents express concern to me that Dane County political leadership does not acknowledge that the lakes were too high, above the legal limit, and that they were deflecting criticism placing blame on the city for the flooding,” he wrote. “While this may be true, I am confident that the county will do the right thing if the public maintains pressure and demands action.”

Information on the flooding initiatives released by Dane County made no mention of lake levels. Instead, they focused on efforts to deal with high-water conditions and improve water quality.

The budget includes $2 million to identify obstacles to water flow along the Yahara chain and remove them. For instance, the county estimates that it takes more than two weeks for 2 inches of rain to empty out of the Yahara system, a rate that officials say can be improved. One problem spot is flow from Lake Monona to its downstream neighbor Lake Waubesa. Nearly a month after the record rainfall swelled the lakes to historic levels, Lake Monona was 8 inches higher that Lake Waubesa. The study would target such areas to locate sediment and other obstacles to water flow.

Another $490,000 would further efforts at aquatic plant removal. After the Aug. 20 rains, a team of aquatic plant harvesters successfully doubled the flow of water out of the Yahara chain. Most of the money, $440,000, would go toward buying two new harvesters, while $50,000 would buy a hydraulic crane to be mounted on an existing barge to remove plants, trees and other obstacles. Another $50,000 would go toward staffing the additional equipment.

The initiative includes $75,000 to hire outside engineers to do real-time modeling of lake levels, evaluating how the flow rates and the Yahara chain ecology are impacted in different scenarios like flooding or drought. The team could also help identify points where sediment is restricting flow.

This summer, the county removed 31 dump trucks of sediment from under a rail bridge just north of Stoughton, which alleviated flooding in Pleasant Spring and the town of Dunn. The budget initiative would look at other bridge crossings where sediment could be impeding flow.

The budget would provide $1 million toward restoring parks, trails and bridges that were damaged by flash flooding. Another $50,000 would go to a fund to restore damaged streambanks on Black Earth Creek, Pheasant Branch Creek, the Sugar River and other gently flowing waterways that swelled into rapids during the August rainfall.

Efforts to restore wetlands would be boosted under the initiative, with $200,000 going toward the restoration of the Door Creek wetlands. Such areas hold and process overflow rainfall, and officials say the Door Creek wetlands helped prevent worse flooding in Pleasant Springs and the town of Dunn. But the wetlands were inundated with water throughout the summer because of sediment buildup.

Another $750,000 would start a program to pay farmers to dedicate a portion of land to growing perennial ground cover that would reduce runoff. 

County officials say that rainfall accounts for only half of the swelling of the river and lakes that put the county into emergency mode after the Aug. 20 rainfall. The rest was runoff from streets, parking lots, roofs and other impermeable surfaces. Parisi is proposing to put $1 million in additional funding into the urban water quality grant program, which municipalities can tap for projects that reduce stormwater runoff.

The budget also addresses emergency response to future flood emergencies, boosting the number of fast-fill sand bagging machines, larger barriers and large pumps to move water off roads and portable generators to power relief efforts during power outages. It would provide $80,000 to the Sheriff’s Department for a new airboat for rescues. It would put $200,000 toward elevating Highway W in the town of Christiana, which was repeatedly flooded over the summer. The budget also includes funding for a new web-based phone system that will allow 911 callers to report emergencies to a website when lines are busy, as well as $25,000 for emergency housing for special needs evacuees.

Soglin, who released his letter to the City Council independently of the county’s budget announcement, raised similar concerns about flash flooding, particularly that which occurred unrelated to lake levels on the city’s west side. He noted that flooding in areas like University Avenue and McKenna Boulevard, which have flooded during rain events in the past, and the Blackhawk, Odana-Mineral Point and other areas that flooded for the first time, was due to the capacity of storm sewers.

“The cost of correcting these problems will be extraordinary,” he said. “We are not hopeful of obtaining state of Wisconsin or federal government assistance to make corrections although we will explore every avenue.”

Soglin rejected the convening of another advisory group like the 2012 Yahara Lakes Advisory Group, which had 22 members but only two from Madison. The group did not recommend lowering lake levels.

“If another YLAG is convened, the 250,000 people in the city of Madison should not receive less representation than three marinas or that of five communities with a fraction of our population,” he said.

But if another such committee were formed, he said it should be after engineers from the city, county and the private sector developed a “unified position based on solid data.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.